So that went well… kind of. After what felt like the longest birth pain in history, America has finally voted out ‘the orange one’ and made Joe Biden President-elect (we think) on his third time of asking. Joe is used to waiting though — he apparently asked Jill to marry him five times before she finally shrugged and said okay. American voters just did the same.
However, once they did, alongside the dancing in the streets, the hand wringing over why, in the face of Trumpism, this wasn’t an out and out landslide started almost immediately. Why did Trump nearly win? How was this so close? And is this really such a ‘new day’ or is it a return to normalcy that will prove to be maybe the most inconsequential presidency in history? And isn’t Biden just a bit… boring?
Many of these concerns come from the left and were perhaps best summed up (and certainly most amusingly) by The Daily Show’s video skit Joe Biden: Acceptable under the circumstances.
As an outside observer, I get some of those concerns — he is ‘acceptable under the circumstances’ but, personally, I think he’s more than that too and not just because he’s not Trump. Here’s why:
“He’s not progressive enough”
Well, no shit Sherlock but who is? Or, rather, who is progressive enough and actually has a chance of winning? Don’t get me wrong — I love Bernie, AOC and all that push to the left in the Democratic Party. I’m European, I live in a country that still benefits from the last vestiges of social policies and I have just seen a true socialist become leader of a major party… and I have also seen him lose badly in a general election against a crazy haired, power-mad elitist with multiple ex-wives. Sound familiar? I’m sorry, but Bernie couldn’t have done it, not even against Trump.
That doesn’t mean that the left hasn’t had its influence though. I’m a firm believer that you need those guys, you need people who can pull the frame. Biden/Harris probably wouldn’t have the tax policy they do without Elizabeth Warren; the healthcare policy without Sanders; or the emphasis on the environment without Ocasio-Cortez. And they wouldn’t have a chance in Georgia without Stacey Abrams — it may not have been acknowledged by name in their acceptance speeches but was definitely there and if nothing else Biden knows when to thank someone.
I think the smartest thing here though is how to wrap these policies up. In Britain, the impending disaster of Brexit will no doubt be hidden within the current disaster of the Coronavirus like a turd with an exploding centre of pure diarrhea. Biden’s plans seem to be more like hiding broccoli in mash — sustainable energy in jobs, healthcare reform in fighting Covid, police oversight in giving everyone ‘a fair chance’. Will all these things happen? Who knows but at least they are in there (if you squint) and they’re packaged up in a palatable gift of middle ground shrouded in American values. Yes, they’re not as radical or strong as the left want or need but there’s a wink with that all American smile and perhaps, at this point, that’s the best we can ask for and still win.
“He’s too old/white/male”
Yes, yes that’s exactly what he is but you know who votes for old white guys? Other old white guys! That was Joe’s job, his whole shtick in some ways — that he could win back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That does not take away from the amazing work of activists and organisers in cities like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit or Atlanta and the power of the Black vote which has always been an extraordinary story of determination and faith. But the fact remains that, after these four years, that incredible effort would have been given whoever the Democrat candidate was. I’m not saying that the old white vote won the election — it didn’t — but the perception of literally ‘regular Joe’ pulled votes from that demographic even from counties that Trump won.
The same can be said the other way though — Biden was Obama’s VP and he has chosen a woman of colour for his VP. His rhetoric is all ‘fair shots’, possibilities and chances to better yourself — American values to be sure but also direct calls to social justice. And acknowledging systemic racism is a cornerstone of his platform. Would that have happened without the 2020 wave of Black activism? Maybe not but it’s there.
In some ways it goes back to the previous point of packaging. Joe is an old, white, male establishment Democrat, sympathetic to the issues but optically a traditional candidate. However, he will also surround himself with people that are not that. Think back to Obama and those memes about their friendship… part of the reason that worked was because they seemed like such opposites — a fresh faced Black man who had gone to Harvard and an Irish-Catholic from Scranton who had been in the Senate for three decades but they complimented each other. Personally, I think (and hope) that Kamala is only the start. He’s said he wants his team to look like America and let’s face it, that means a much broader pallet than Trump had but also people who will push for different policies. Policies that can be sold by an old, white, man to steel workers in Pennsylvania rather than just to hipsters in Brooklyn.
“He’s just ‘not Donald Trump’”
And that’s a bad thing? No, he’s not Donald Trump and THANK FUCK FOR THAT! From political experience to size of their ties these are two very different old white guys. But probably the most stark factor (and one I can write about without being an actual political expert) is the one Team Joe has been touting throughout the campaign: Character.
We might like to think that politics shouldn’t be about that — that politics should only be about policy — but personality plays a huge role in what your values are and that talks to how you see the world and what you think should happen once you’re in power. Anyone who even knows a scant biography of these two men can see how and why their outlooks seem to differ so much. But particularly right now it might be best to look at how these two men have dealt with loosing.
In the days since he lost, Trump has continued with his planned discreditation of the democratic system and accusing everyone else — the Democrats, the US post office, poll workers, voters — of ‘stealing’ the election. He’s seems to have never come up against a problem he couldn’t litigate or throw money at to make it go away and it shows. He has spent his life not knowing or taking on real loss.
In his acceptance speech, Joe Biden reached out to Trump voters, admitting he’d lost a few times and knows how it feels. He’s not just talking about running for the presidency three times or getting turned down by Jill either. In 1972, just after Biden had won his Senate seat for the first time, his wife and baby daughter were killed and his two sons were severely injured in a car accident. Then in 2015, while Biden was still serving as Vice-President, the oldest of his children and someone also tipped as a future President, Beau Biden, died from a brain tumor. Beau’s death was a factor in why Joe didn’t run for President in 2016. These are personal losses, but they show Biden’s attitude of a fortitude born of empathy. Watch this 2015 interview with Stephen Colbert (one of my heroes who has also experienced deep loss and a fellow American Irish-Catholic) to see what I mean:
My point is that Joe Biden will bring that empathy, that sense of responsibility, that drive to try to the presidency. That video also shows that he’s pretty fun and he’ll bring that to it too. Just imagine how many sayings from his parents and grandparents not to mention Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yates, we’re gonna have over these next four to eight years — I’ve never heard Trump quote anyone but himself. And you’d best believe, pretty soon, we’re all gonna be honorary Bidens — taken in to that sprawling family with their problems, sure, but also their visible love for eachother, where dads hug and kiss their sons and where everyone is welcome… a quality that reminds me of America itself.
And that might be my final pitch for Joe, is that he cares and that’s a very American thing. Any Brit who has ever visited are frequently amazed by how many times you’re asked ‘How are you?’ by waitresses, by shop assistants, by people in the street, how genuinely helpful people are, how they always seem to want you to be happy, how polite they are — where else do get a ‘yes, mam’ with your hot dog? And that’s why, ultimately, I think Biden’s character matters — Americans can only take so much rudeness and that’s what Trump was: rude.
Biden might not be as progressive as you want, his image might be traditional or hokey even but his values and the way he displays them are very American — truth, honesty, respect, welcoming and warm. Grandad has come back in the room and he’s just told your racist uncle to shut up and go home. So enjoy this cup of hot chocolate, America, feel safe for a while because you may well have to teach Grandad how to use TikTok or dismantle institutional racism but at least you know he’ll listen and won’t just snatch your phone away and shout in your face that it doesn’t exist. And that is more than acceptable under the circumstances.